Phoebe Fox on the Noir of ‘Intrigo: Samaria’ and the Corsets of ‘The Great’

Jenelle Riley

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Phoebe Fox was born in to an acting family, the daughter of actors Stuart Fox and Prue Clark. When she was a young girl, she got to see her mother play Cinderella. “I was seven or eight and couldn’t get over the fact my mom was Cinderella,” she says with a laugh. “To me, it just seemed like the best job, playing make-believe.”

After attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Fox soon made a name for herself onstage in plays like “A View from the Bridge” opposite Mark Strong and films like “Eye in the Sky” and “The Aeronauts.”

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This week, she can be seen in two very different roles: now available on digital and streaming is “Intrigo: Samaria,” a mystery from Swedish director Daniel Alfredson; the film is the third in a trilogy of films based on stories from acclaimed Swedish writer Håkan Nesser. Fox plays Paula, a documentary filmmaker haunted by the disappearance of a fellow student a decade earlier, who enlists the help of a former teacher, played by “Broadchurch” actor Andrew Buchan.

Next, she appears in the limited series “The Great,” hailing from “The Favourite” screenwriter Tony McNamara and landing on Hulu May 15. In this satirical reimagining of Catherine the Great’s story, Fox plays Marial, a woman who has been stripped of her title and now serves Elle Fanning’s Catherine, who has just arrived to wed the immature Russian Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult.)

What drew you to “Intrigo: Samaria”?
I really liked Paula; I was drawn to her duality as a character. She projects one thing, but her interior life is something completely different. I have had really good experiences working with directors from Sweden, and they do noir as a genre so well. Most of the film is a face-off between mine and Andrew’s character and I thought that was really interesting.

You have great chemistry together; did you know each other before shooting the film?
We actually didn’t know each other, but we had some mutual friends. He also went to RADA, so there’s always that connection. But from the moment we met, we got on so well. The director said, “You know you two work so well together because you have a very similar technique. Your first take is great, your second take is the best — and then it’s just downhill from there.” (Laughs) I think it would be hard if one actor was like that but the other wasn’t, but thankfully we’re both like that. I think it’s because we both work on instinct and we like it when it’s fresh and we don’t know what the other is going to do. As soon as it falls into a routine, we both get bored, essentially. So we really vibed off each other.

What was it like playing a character 10 years apart, as we also see Paula as a student?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to speak as the young character I’m not sure what I would have done. When it came to the look, I think I actually said, “You can part my hair in the middle and leave it curly!” It’s really what I looked as a teenager because it was before I learned how to straighten my hair and had the right products.

You mentioned RADA; what was your experience like getting into that school?
I think they get about 3,000 applicants for about 30 spots. And I had four auditions. I auditioned for three years to get into drama school anywhere – and got into RADA on my third try. I was just so doggedly determined because I didn’t want to do anything else. I applied to five or six schools and every year I didn’t get in and would say, “Okay, that’s another gap year for me!” In hindsight, I’m glad I went when I was a bit older because it’s an intense experience, especially if you’re not sure of who you are yet. I was really shy and I basically realized I needed to develop a confident persona to get through the audition process. I developed a mask to wear.

You’re the child of actors; did you always know it was something you wanted to pursue?
I was hook, line and sinker from day one. I don’t really remember ever seriously considering a different career. It just seemed so fun. That’s my childhood; I think back to rosy days spent backstage. I’m sure they were quite stressful for my parents but as a child, they were halcyon days.

How did they feel about you pursuing a career as an actor?
They loved it.  They did sit me down once to have the talk where they laid it out and let me know it’s hard. But I think that they knew that I had a very realistic view of what it was actually like. They were jobbing actors, they weren’t stars, and I knew about sitting around waiting for a job and waiting for a paycheck to come in. I had my feet on the ground.

What was your first professional job?
My first play was “A Month in the Country” at the Chichester Festival Theatre. My first filming job was one of the first episodes of “Black Mirror,” before anyone knew what that was going to be. It was this mad project with some great people behind it – and now it’s “Black Mirror!” It was sort of baptism by fire. My first scene ever on camera was a dinner scene and I ate all the food. They yelled cut and the actor across from me was like, “You know you’re going to have to eat the same thing every single time.” I learned the hard way.

You’re also appearing in “The Great,” which comes out this week. What interested you in this project?
The first reading of it, I was enamored by the character; she’s really fun to do. But it’s challenging; tonally, it’s hard to pitch because it’s sitting somewhere between comedy and tragedy. It’s walking a fine line. But I loved “The Favourite” and had been wanting to do some comedy. I don’t do that much, honestly – I thought I would do more coming out of drama school, but I’ve kind of fallen down a tragedy hole.

Your main scene partner is wonderful Elle Fanning, but the entire cast is fantastic.
I adore Elle. She’s incredibly down to earth and warm and funny and we got along like a house on fire. Even when we were working long hours she was always delightful. The cast as a whole were dreamy. A talented group of people, I was continually in awe of them. I didn’t get to work much with Nicholas but there is a scene where people keep trying to suffocate him with a pillow and he told me afterwards, “You were the first person where I thought, I could actually die!”

What was the biggest challenge on the show?
A corset is always challenging. But I think I got off lightly compared to some of the other characters. I actually find all of that stuff helpful. Being restricted; especially my character who is fundamentally bound by her situation – I found the corset and head wrap really helpful to make me feel my servitude.

We don’t get to see what Marial’s life was like when she was on the court; I wonder a lot about what that was like.
Well, in my mind, she was top dog.

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